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Reagan Will Ask Stronger Hand in Shaping Budget

January 11, 1986|ELEANOR CLIFT | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — President Reagan, trying to head off automatic spending cuts that could cripple his defense buildup, will ask Congress to give him a chance to veto its annual budget framework for the coming year, White House spokesman Larry Speakes said Friday.

"The President has long felt that the budget is submitted to Congress and called 'the President's budget,' but from the moment it leaves the White House . . . he has very little to do with it except his powers of persuasion," Speakes said.

Reagan's proposal, which will be part of his Jan. 28 State of the Union address, was triggered by enactment last month of the Gramm-Rudman act. That law requires across-the-board spending cuts if Congress fails to reduce the deficit to a series of targets that decline to zero in 1991, and about half the cuts would fall on defense.

Under present procedures, Congress each spring is supposed to adopt a budget framework for the spending legislation it enacts later in the year. But the President has no power to sign or veto that framework, and as a consequence, Speakes said, the budget inevitably grows uncontrollably as it passes through Congress.

If Congress fails to meet the Gramm-Rudman act's deficit ceilings, automatic spending cuts would land heavily on defense spending. The act is effective as of this year, and government agencies are expected to announce next Wednesday that the act will require $11.7-billion worth of spending cuts, the maximum permitted for that year, effective March 1.

About $5 billion of those cuts would be from defense, and Reagan took advantage Friday of a special provision of the Gramm-Rudman act, effective for 1986 only, that allows him to shield military pay from the Defense Department's budget reductions. In a letter to Congress, Reagan formally requested that the military personnel budget be almost entirely exempt from any fiscal 1986 cuts.

Pentagon spokesman Fred S. Hoffman said only $245 million would be shaved out of the $67.7-billion military personnel budget by trimming military transfers, schooling and reserve training. In addition, he said, there will be an acceleration of the early release of people already planning to leave the military.

Congress, which has not yet convened for 1986, is not expected to approve Reagan's bid for authority to sign or veto its annual budget framework because that would enhance presidential power at congressional expense. Rep. Vic Fazio (D-Sacramento), a member of the House Budget and Appropriations committees, said Reagan's proposal would only complicate the budget process and delay the decision making in Congress.

"It would add just another impediment," he said. "The budget resolution really is just a blueprint, an outline that we fill in later in the year. If he doesn't like it, he can veto the implementing legislation."

But a White House official said Reagan was trying to "force cooperation a little earlier" and reduce the likelihood that Gramm-Rudman's across-the-board spending cuts would be triggered. Without agreement between Congress and the President on a strategy for reducing the deficit, this official said, the automatic spending cuts would be virtually inevitable.

Although Reagan praised the Gramm-Rudman act when he signed it last month, he and his aides have since voiced second thoughts.

'Blunt Instrument'

Speakes called it "a very blunt instrument" because the cuts would be made without discretion. James C. Miller III, director of the Office of Management and Budget, refers to the automatic spending cuts of Gramm-Rudman as "the baseball bat in the closet."

One White House budget official expressed concern that the Administration's scare talk about Gramm-Rudman could hasten the legislative deadlock that Reagan fears. "It's a mistake to undermine Gramm-Rudman because it undermines our entire budget pitch for the year," he said, "and that's what's going on."

This official said that federal spending would not be the centerpiece of Reagan's State of the Union address. "We're going to talk about preparing for a decade of economic growth, not budgets and deficits," he said.

Push for Tax Overhaul

Reagan is expected to push for overhaul of the tax code and repeat his position that no tax increase is needed this year. He will also repeat his call for a constitutional amendment requiring a balanced budget, although an adviser admitted that "the political steam is gone" now that Gramm-Rudman in place.

White House officials said Reagan will strike a thematic tone in his televised speech, avoiding the usual laundry list of programs and nods to various interest groups.

Speakes said Reagan is determined to speak for no more than 20 minutes, about half the length of past speeches.

Staff Writers Sara Fritz and James Gerstenzang contributed to this story.

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